Friday, April 7, 2017

A Visit with Britta Lee Shain, Author of the Dylan-Centric Memoir Seeing The Real You At Last

You never know whose paths you'll cross when you're social, and social media makes this easier than ever. Late last fall I was introduced to Britta (Bree-da) Lee Shain via Twitter. A writer and musician, among other things, Shain has written a memoir about her experiences being in the same circles as Bob Dylan, including a road trip with man himself. Her boyfriend was Dylan's road manager and this book, Seeing The Real You At Last (Life And Love On The Road With Bob Dylan details what came to pass.

At a certain point I couldn't help but think of other stories about people who sought to get close to Dylan. According to Walter Isaacson's account of Steve Jobs, the tech rock star entered into a two-year romance with Joan Baez which ended when he had the realization that his real motive was to get close to Dylan somehow.

The time frame in this book is 1987, a period of time that included a brief cross-country tour with the Grateful Dead and a European Tour. Longtime Dylan followers know this period in his career as one of floundering, though perhaps an experience that served as catalyst for the birth of his own Never Ending Tour.

EN: When did you first take an interest in writing? What did you do to develop your writing skills?

Britta Lee Shain: I was born a writer. Childhood friends tell me they still have copies of the short
stories I wrote in elementary school. But any fantasies I had about pursuing a writing career were quickly derailed in 1966 when I was accepted to UC Berkeley, and my mother insisted I enroll as pre-med. When she passed away unexpectedly, in ‘71, I terminated my formal education with a master’s degree in psychology and began exploring screenwriting as an art form.

A few screenplays and a couple of novels later, I saw an ad in the LA Weekly for a private prose writing workshop taught by a USC professor of literature in his home up in Los Feliz. This was “Year One” into my post-Dylan life. I applied and was one of 8 people accepted. The teacher turned out to be Pen Center’s USA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, John Rechy, author of City of Night and the Sexual Outlaw. John took me under his wing. I would study with him for the next 7 years.

EN: You mention being affected by a writer's guild strike at one point. How long have you been a member of a professional writer's guild? What role has it played in your writing career?

BLS: I was never actually a member of The Writers Guild, but whenever a strike occurs in any one of the guilds, Hollywood shuts down for everyone.

EN: Lines from Dylan songs are sprinkled throughout the book. Isn't it amazing how there seems to be a Dylan line for nearly everything that happens in life?

BLS: Yes. There’s a scene in my book where Bob’s mastiffs get loose after a show, and when he takes off running to catch them, I find myself wincing in horror as I call after him, “Let dogs run free!” It’s crazy how many times I’ve spoken his lyrics out loud in conversation - “I can’t help it if I’m lucky” or “It’s a wonder that we (sic) still know how to breathe” - and how few times anyone knows what the hell I’m talking about. Of late, I keep thinking, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

EN: Much of what you share seems very personal. How does a writer decide what to leave in and what to leave out when writing a memoir like this?

BLS: It’s not easy. It’s one of the reasons I’m glad the book didn’t get published till now. My first draft was much more careless with other people’s feelings and even my own. I never kept a journal about Bob, per se, and, I never set out to write a book about him. But when he almost died in ’97 from a potentially fatal heart infection, I realized I was still tangled up in Him even though I’d been married for 5 years. The thought that he might pass away was devastating, and I knew I had to go deep to come up with my feelings and exorcise them. Sometimes when you do that and don’t censor yourself, you unearth things, resentments, attachments and the like, that you didn’t even know were there. The first draft laid it all out. But after almost 30 years’ perspective, in 2015, I was able to go back into the work, carve out the meat of the story and throw away some of the gristle - anything unnecessary to the narrative or unnecessarily unkind (even if true). Having had my original manuscript stolen, made it somewhat easier psychologically for me to proceed without regret regarding some of the harsher aspects of the story because the person who had stolen it had already made several of the incidents a matter of public record. My job, then, was to give those story elements context.

EN: What did you learn from writing this book?

BLS: When I completed the first draft, I learned what it was like to experience catharsis. I was able to free myself from Dylan’s spell and get on with my life. I didn’t seek publication. Others sought it for me. When nothing happened with the initial draft because of its raw, personal nature, I was relieved. But once I discovered that my story had been co-opted by someone else, adulterated and published, I developed a growing and eventually irrepressible desire to tell truth to power, and so after all these years, on the eve of a “second” printing, I revisit catharsis, and I relish it.

EN: What did you learn from reading the reviews of your book on Amazon?

BLS: Well the first lesson I learned was that someone doesn’t actually need to read your book to review it. That was a real eye opener, and one of the very first reviews I received before the book had even come out was like that--just a few scathing words directed at me. 1 star. Ouch! The whole notion was so outlandish that it toughened me up for all that would follow, and the interesting thing is that the more I’ve let go of caring what people think, the more positive the reviews have been.

On January 1st, Seeing The Real You At Last was #15 on the New York Post’s “40 Best Books of 2016 You Must Read Immediately,” so I can’t really dwell too much on the negative. I’ve been graced with many, many positive reviews. But the best thing about having written this book has been the letters I receive from Dylan fans around the world, almost on a daily basis and often more than one a day, telling me how much they love the book, or that they were moved by the book, and/or that they were glad to see the human side of Bob, or not. Some of the women have had their own experiences with him. Some have become friends and allies, inviting me to join different Dylan groups and helping me promote my book, my music and my live performances. In the 90s, when I was reviewing films for Venice Magazine, our editor cautioned the entire staff. “No negative reviews,” he said. “Anyone can write a bad review. It’s much more difficult to write a positive one.” Now, some twenty-five odd years later, the internet has given a platform for negativity to a great many people whose opinions would not otherwise be known.

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Britta Lee Shain has recently produced a CD called What the Heart Wants.
To learn more about her music and career visit http://brittaleeshainbooksandmusic.com/

Photo Credits
Head shot: Debrah Lemattre
Middle: Marcel V Shain

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Don't Look Back
Quick plug here for the 2017 Duluth Dylan Fest. Complete schedule here... Dylan activities every day from May 20 to Sunday May 28.

Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows

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3 comments:

FlutingAway - said...

Great review Ed Newman. I'm sure Britta Lee Shain appreciates this very much. Glad I introduced you two. Hope to meet you next time you visit Orange County CA. - Karin Marie Michels

FlutingAway - said...

P.S. And I love your painting of Bob Dylan. How many did you paint of him? I have the one you sketched in my video of "Must Be Your Magic" with Magic Marc Percansky standing next to it.

Ed Newman said...

Thanks, Karin. To see more of my Dylan paintings visit this Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ennyman/